It’s the second to last day of the ten-day trip I volunteered on with the Australian Institute of Marine Science, and honestly, I am sad to go. These past 8 days have taught me about scientific data gathering, coral species, fish identification they have allowed me to dive some of the most pristine and untouched reefs I have ever seen all while on a boat with excellent company and delicious food. For anyone looking to volunteer and expand your marine science knowledge volunteering with AIMS on the Great Barrier Reef is the ideal place for you.
Before you do volunteer with aims, you will need to provide a plethora of documentation to prove your qualifications and skills. Amongst these will be:
- A professional dive medical less than a year old. The 2299 in Australia.
- First Aid and Advanced Resuscitation with Oxygen provider certification.
- Minimum of PADI Rescue Diver qualification or equivalent.
- 50 hours of logged diving. (This is very important, you must have your logbook signed, dated with all the relevant information filled in)
- Be 18 years of age
You will also have to go through an induction in Townsville at the AIMS headquarters, fill out numerous liability releases, safety sheets and become familiar with the equipment. Once on the boat you will also have dive and boat induction on your first day.
How Does it Work?
For many aspiring marine biologists or dive professionals, going out with AIMS will give you a unique opportunity to see what Marine Biology fieldwork looks like on the Great Barrier Reef. There are several projects going on simultaneously, but the one I was invited on was the longest ever reef monitoring program in the world. It has been running for over 30 years and scientists gather data from ___ reefs to study the coral and fish population health and changes. These are the guys at the forefront of gathering data that numerous scientists around the world base their papers on.
Typically, a research trip will be around 25 days long, with two volunteers needed on the boat to help the marine biologists. You can either stay on for half the time, like I have, or the full month-long trip. This will depend on your availability and agreement with the cruise leader.
What is the volunteer’s job?
Once you have been inducted, which includes a diving induction where you show you can clear your mask, recover your regulator and do some basic surface tows, you are all ready to be a dive buddy.
As a vollunteer your activities will be limited due to health and safety standards. Primarily, you will act as a dive buddy to one of the scientists on the dives. Typically, this means you will have 60m tapes that you will be unrolling along the reef marking the transects where the scientists will be gathering their data. The first buddy team will be comprised of one scientist and a volunteer unrolling the tapes. Once they have completed what typically is between a 35-45-minute dive at around 9 meters depth, the second volunteer and their scientist will hop into the water. This buddy team’s volunteer will be rolling up the tapes.
When not diving, the other way the scientists gather data which gives them a rough idea of the coral coverage of larger portions of the reef is manta tows. A manta tow is a board attached to the back of a small boat which the scientist holds on to, and while snorkelling is dragged behind the boat around the reef. Here, the volunteer’s job is to time each of these manta tows and signalling when to stop for the scientist to be able to take notes and input data of each separate tow.
What does the schedule look like?
If it is a good weather day and the boat has arrived at a reef, this is roughly what your day would look like.
7:00 – Breakfast which is comprised of overnight oats, fruit salad and your choice of bread, cereals, coffee or tea.
7:30 – Briefing by the cruise leader about the activities of the day ahead.
8:00 – Start loading safety, dive and science gear into the two tenders. Each boat will have three people on board, two scientists and 1 volunteer.
8:30 – Begin the manta tows. One scientist in the water, one driving the tender while the volunteer measures time and number of manta tows performed. The goal here is for the scientists to gain a rough understanding of the general health of the reef.
10:00 – Prepare for the first dive. The first buddy team will be one scientist with one volunteer who will be unrolling 5x50m tapes along the reef.
10:45 – The first set of divers will exit the water so the second set of divers will begin getting ready for their dive. On this dive, the second volunteer will be rolling the tapes back up.
12:00 – Once everyone is finished and out of the water, both boats will head back to the ship. You will help unload them and get dry and ready for lunch.
12:30 – Lunch is served, and it is genuinely some of the best food I have ever had in my life. The chef on board caters for any dietary requirements.
13:30 – You will start gearing up for the next two dives in the afternoon.
14:00 – 17:00 – Same deal as earlier, however now you will be doing two dives instead of a Manta Tow and a dive.
18:30 – Dinner is served. On top of the scrumptious dinner there is also delicious desserts available every night.
The schedule on the day greatly depends on the distance between the reefs, how much steaming you must do, what the weather is doing and if everyone is feeling fit to dive.
Is there any free time on the boat?
Whenever you are steaming, before breakfast, after dinner and just about any time you are not diving is free time. I spent my free time learning German on Duolingo, writing articles (such as this one), texting my friends through WhatsApp or reading a book. The crew and scientists on board are also a lovely bunch who are up for a chat or a boardgame in the evenings. It is a great combination of socialising, yet everyone is extremely respectful of each other’s space and the boat is big enough to find a quiet corner.
What is the boat like?
If you are lucky to volunteer on the Cape Ferguson, which is AIMS’s research vessel you will be treated to (what I consider) luxury. There is internet, hot showers, washer, dryer, snacks available any time of the day, coffee, tea, towels are provided, loads of books and some boardgames on board. You will be sharing a cabin with the other volunteer. The cabin has bunk beds, cupboards and a desk. There is also an area where you can work out, some gym equipment available, office space for scientists, a wet lab and a large communal area with a tv. This is where I spent most evenings playing monopoly cards or watching game of thrones. There is no alcohol on board and you are expected to behave in a professional manner at all times.
What is the scuba diving like?
The real draw of this volunteering opportunity is the destinations of the research vessel. Since it is a scientific expedition, AIMS has access to reefs in the Pink Zones. These are zones where no one can go without a permit, and boats are even not allowed to steam or sail over the top of them. The diving is mostly shallow, warm, coral diving. You can see some reefs which have been scarred by crown of thorns, some that have been devastated by cyclones and others which look more beautiful than you can ever have imagined. On my trip, we headed out to the Swain reefs and dived without another boat in sight for the entirety of the ten days.
One of the reasons I think this is probably the best volunteer opportunity out there, is that there are no costs involved on your part. Once you have done your dive medical and your first aid training, AIMS covers the rest of the expenses.
This includes your flights from Townsville to wherever the boat is departing from. On board you have all your scuba gear (apart from mask, snorkel, and fins) provided for you and you get 10-25 days of delicious food.
Things to Consider
Every morning at the briefing you will be asked whether you are fit to dive for the day, it is vital that you voice your real thoughts and concerns. It is vital that you feel healthy and energised enough for the day of diving, as three dives a day plus several hours on the open ocean are exhausted. It is quite physically challenging, so apply if you are in good physical shape. The dives themselves are not too challenging as you are only allowed to descend to a depth of 15 meters maximum, however you will need to help load the boats, pull yourself into the boat and potentially swim against mild currents. The scientists depend on you, so if you decide to volunteer consider a serious commitment. There is also a significant amount of steaming to reach the reefs from the coast, therefore if you do get sea sick, it is advisable to take tablets. If you do not get sea sick, I would still recommend taking tablets just in case.
My Thoughts on the Trip
This was one of my favourite volunteer experiences and I loved seeing behind the curtain of how marine biologists are gathering data in the effort to learn about the Great Barrier Reef. They are at the forefront of seeing the changes on the reefs, whether it is coral bleaching, coral death due to crown of thorns starfish, acidification or impacts of cycles. Some of the scientists on board have been working with the monitoring program for over twenty years and their knowledge and experience is invaluable in this environment. They are all lovely people and clearly care deeply about our oceans. I am honoured to have been part of this expedition, and hope to have the ability to come back on board next time.